hen he first visited Saigon in the late 1940s, the writer Norman Lewis made this observation of the sidewalk life he saw here, after a short amble through the city:
“It was clear from the first moment of picking my way through these crowded, torrid streets that the lives of the people of the far East are lived in public… The street is the extension of the house and there is no sharp dividing line between the two. At dawn, or, in the case of Saigon, at the hour when the curfew is lifted, people roll out of bed and make for the pavement, where there is more space to perform most of their toilet. Thereafter they eat, play cards, doze, wash themselves, have their teeth seen to, are cupped and massaged by physicians, visit fortune-tellers; all in the street” (Lewis, 22)
Putting aside Lewis’ colonial, generalizing gaze for a moment, we can note the snapshot of what has become a typical Saigon scene, a picture of personal lives lived publicly on the city’s sidewalks. Seventy some years later, the same public, multi-use sidewalks of the city haven’t changed all that much. The first haircut I got when I first returned to Vietnam was on a sidewalk in Nha Trang; I was patiently trimmed by an old barber using tools tidily organized on a cart, complete with a foldup chair, mirror, very sharp shaving blade, and left fifty cents and a lot of hair lighter. Such barbers, vendors, cafes, and newspaper stands still keep the sidewalks of the city humming with business today.
Recently, the Vietnamese government has decided to take back what they deem to be Saigon’s unruly sidewalks back into their control. Police has been firm in their crackdown on illegal vendors, motorbike parking and walkway driving, fining shop signs placed without permission. To deter hawkers, vendors, and itinerant motor-bikers, police have erected ankle high metal rails and occasional waist high barriers. Some of these barriers form labyrinthine, narrow corridors, others are placed inconspicuously low to the ground and often trip walkers, paradoxically hampering and deterring the very pedestrians they were meant to protect. The ideal outcome wished for by planners and authorities, seem to be for HCMC to be more like Singapore: cleaner, more orderly, with regular traffic rules, modern infrastructure, and safer walkways.
There are ample arguments for this “take back the sidewalk” initiative, of course. Saigon hasn’t been a safe city for walkers for some time, and that is in part due to the flexible treatment of what a sidewalk should be used for, as observed by Lewis even in the 40s. A visiting Norman Lewis today would find the city sidewalk even more hostile to pedestrians than the walkways of his day, I’d expect. The space is occasionally a battleground of tense skirmishes between pedestrians, vendors, parked and moving motorbikes all jostling for space. I’d hate to be a young father with toddlers in tow; I can’t imagine how I could take infants around the city in the confusion of activity of these streets.
Some Saigonese complain that the directive has been carried out with blunt, indiscriminating zealotry, sometimes without thought given to residual effects. My street in D4, for example, rarely has pedestrians on its sidewalks to begin with, given as it is an area where everyone mostly rides motorbikes. The cafes and restaurants lining the sidewalks were already on wide walkways, perfect spaces for sitting stools and small tables that were there, with plenty of room remaining for pedestrians interested in roaming through or stopping by. With the crackdown, there really is less draw for pedestrians; The sidewalks are cleared for their ambling, but provide no compelling destinations to visit. Parking availability for motorbikes is now an issue also. Days after the sidewalk reclamation project started, I roamed around district one for half an hour trying to find a spot for my motorbike, in vain.
Others have noted the unfortunate timing of the directive, occurring before any infrastructure is given to support walkers in the city. The subway system is not close to completion. Traffic is even more prevalent with yearly increases in cars, meaning motorbikes are now more motivated to push onto sidewalks to escape. The city is in the midst of a construction craze, with many sidewalks taken over by the spillover from construction sites, with guardrails and materials blocking sidewalks all the way to city streets.
Residents are further worried that streets relying on sidewalk culture, such as the backpacker street, Bui Vien and its neighbors, will soon be diminished or altered. These spaces that have taken time to accrue such heavy pedestrian traffic, with clusters of cultures of their own, are seen as under threat, and could change irrevocably with the crackdown.
Last week I woke up to see a congregation of policemen taking down all the signs on my street and moving the cafes and restaurant chairs all indoors. Facing my apartment are two cafes that often had customers sitting on chairs and stools, enjoying the tree shade and awning of the building overlooking the sidewalk. I noticed that the stools were already gone, and the proprietors were all out watching the police take down the signs. No argument or altercation arrived, just quiet acquiescence. Silent capitulation.
I asked anh Hong, the local banh mi seller in the alleyway nearby, what he thought would happen now to the local small restaurants, cafes, and vendors on Nguyen Khoai. He simply nodded and said:
“They’ve been clearing stalls all morning and they’ll keep doing it. The owners will just move everything indoors now. They have to.”
“But how will customers know that people are selling food and drinks here, if there are no signs posted or allowed?”
He shrugged, and said he is disappointed, but believed there’ll still be customers. When I asked him if they’ve asked him to move his banh mi shop from the alley, or if the folks who sell street food in the alley are worried, he said “No, they’ve left us alone. But my wife had to change her location. Now the alleys are busier”.
Within three hours of the police arrival, my street was emptied of signs, stools, businesses, even including, I might add, any pedestrians. Several days after the clearing, the cafes still remained open, but in diminished form, without the customers that used to frequent the stalls, traffic watching or reading newspapers in the mornings. Other places were similarly transformed. The com binh dan place I sometimes eat at on Ho Tung Mau, bustling with office workers nearby during lunch hour, has now become a take out booth, dispensing their dishes in Styrofoam boxes to a smaller line of people. It seems that the housed, indoor establishments, with more expensive food served in air-conditioned spaces, will do better now as the sidewalks are cleared of their competition.
But will newly regulated sidewalks change the essential nature of Saigon? Is it possible such a crack down might be emptying the city not only of illegal vendors and bull-rushing motorbikes, but also of social commerce, draining the city of the distinct identity of its sidewalks? Is Saigon assimilating into the conglomerate of the preformed, high rise monoculture that forms the corporatization of so many other Asian cities today?
It seems the crackdown is partially an aspirational movement towards what the government hopes Saigon forever is progressing towards: order, infrastructure, cleanliness. Outlying districts such as Phu My Hung and the future District 2 – the latter unabashedly aiming to become Vietnam’s imitation of Shanghai’s Pudong – have provided models of top down design that are less chaotic and more socioeconomically selective than the mixture of sidewalk living that exists here now. One can’t help but notice the government and developers prodding the city towards such planned models of urbanity in the foreseeable future.
Such an aspiration Vietnam has for private, planned developments and the ethos that follow such, is the subject of a book by Yale anthropologist Erik Harms. Called Luxury and Rubble: Civilization and Disposession in the New Saigon, the study examines two outlying master planned spaces of Saigon: Phu My Hung and Thu Thiem. It describes how inhabitants of these spaces foresee not just a new suburb extension of the city, but a way forward for the country as a whole:
“…They [inhabitants of Phu My Hung] truly believed that the vision of public life emerging in Phu My Hung held much more promise for the future of Vietnam than most of the visions that had existed in the past. For them, it didn’t matter whether the development was ‘privatised’; what mattered was that it helped foster a renewed sense of public life and community” (Harms)
Contrary to beliefs that high rise developments lead to isolation, Harms suggests that new forms of socializing are made here, borne of socio economic selectivity, portraying bourgeois elites congregating under the architecture of grand, planned buildings of these suburban neighborhoods. He mentions, for example, a gathering of retirees who exercise in the mornings under the shade given by the high rise condominiums, and on the broad, safe, walkable sidewalks and bridges of the planned spaces of Phu My Hung. Meetings over Pho and coffee, conversations allotted to lives informed by leisure and privilege, followed with conversations often showcasing the speakers’ hopes that such spaces will lead to a hopeful future for Vietnam, a renewed focus on civility between its people.
Such upper middle class inhabitants often directly compare Singapore to Ho Chi Minh City in their aspirational views of these new developments. A high schooler of the district speaks thus of his aunt’s habitation:
“…in the summer she’ll go here and rent and apartment in Skygarden… and she said that, you know, Phu My Hung is like Singapore. It’s so convenient for resting and staying…” (Harms)
Mixed with these aspirational goals in this boom of development, are notions of what the city Saigon might become when the construction dust clears and all these beautification projects are completed. Soon to be closure of artistic spaces like 3A Station and potential shutdowns of independent café and shop spaces like the Catinat building on Dong Khoi and 42 Nguyen Hue signal a more assertive and involved governmental hand, and a notion of what it means to “clean up” the city.
When my family left Saigon in the 80s, I missed the city’s busyness most of all. I hadn’t realized why I missed it so much then, but I know now that I was longing for the close, audible proximities of other human beings, the ease of going to see my friend nearby or joining his family selling at the market, the sense that on any given day, my family and I could interact with neighbors, cousins, traders, shopkeepers, stall vendors, in the public spaces of the city. These moments of urban socializing were replaced by the roomy, placid suburban landscape of middle America – quiet porcelain gnomes placed on well sprinkled lawns; clean, wide sidewalks barren of walkers during the day. Instead of navigating the chattering chaos of Saigon’s sidewalks, my family learned to move through the wide, safe streets of American suburbia enclosed in our expensive vehicle of solitude, our family sedan.
It surprised me then, to return to see pockets of such similar suburban comforts and separation in Vietnam, in Phu My Hung, and district 2. I recall dating a girl some years ago who drove me to Phu My Hung’s new apartment complexes, who told me that one of her goals was to buy an apartment there someday, as it was so peaceful, quiet, and nice. She is now married to a Swiss developer and living in Switzerland, so her aspirations took her even further away from the bustle of the city, away from Saigon itself.
Like others watching the ever rapid progress of this city, I am uncertain what will arise when the rubble of construction is cleared. For now, my own prediction for Saigon’s future, coming from an admittedly scant understanding of urban design and from my own innate cynicism, is of the eventual closures of vendors and small sidewalk cafes, the rise of enclosed, air-conditioned restaurants and chain cafes and shops, the continual erasure of old historical homes and buildings, the loss of old colonial remnants and architecture, the disappearance of street stalls and vendors, and of the hustling commerce of the walkways of the city. Vendors will move into enclosed markets pre-arranged for them and the lively, chaotic stew of humanity of the Saigonese sidewalk will go the way of the floating water markets that used to be a part of urban river scenery in Saigon. Like the scrubbed waterways, the streets of Saigon will be cleaner, safer, more placid and controlled.